Sustainable farming, local food sources and open spaces are worth protecting. But when water quality suffers due to pollution concerns we must consider pathways to improvement. Agricultural pollution is the largest source of pollution to waterways nationwide. Around the country and in Washington State, agricultural pollution impairs the biological function and human uses of many streams, rivers, lakes and bays. Bacteria and other pathogens contaminate the water, sediment washed off bare fields destroys fish habitat, and nutrient pollution from fertilizers causes harmful algal blooms, which can create toxic or low oxygen conditions. Soundkeeper is engaged in advocacy and policy work with a number of partners to find solutions that protect our waterways.

Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations

There are approximately 1200 Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) in Washington State, but only 21 currently have a pollution discharge permit. There is an abundance of scientific evidence from state and federal agencies that pollution from these facilities, where animals are confined in barns and feedlots and manure is stored in large, unlined lagoons, have hugely detrimental effects on environmental and public health.

Pollution from CAFOs comes in the form of nitrates and fecal coliform bacteria. A single dairy cow produces 120 pounds of waste per day, and the lagoons used to store the accumulated manure leak these contaminants into groundwater. Whatcom County, with one of the highest concentrations of dairies in the state, has consistent water quality challenges. The Sumas-Blaine Aquifer, which provides drinking water for between 18,000 and 27,000 people, has been identified as one of the most severely contaminated aquifers in the state. Drinking water with high levels of nitrates is associated with respiratory, reproductive and thyroid issues and some cancers. Infants exposed to high levels of nitrates are at risk of death.

Most CAFOs dispose of manure by applying it to crop fields as fertilizer, but because many CAFOs produce more manure than the plants on available land can use, this practice is not sufficient to deal with the problem and overapplication of manure is common. Overapplication allows buildup of pollutants in the soil, and those pollutants then enter groundwater and surface water.

Current Actions

In 2017 the Washington Department of Ecology issued a new CAFO General Permit, replacing the prior permit which expired in 2011. But the new permit is too weak to truly protect public health and waterways. Soundkeeper, the Sierra Club, Waterkeeper Alliance, and other partners appealed the permit in order to force the state to include the basic water quality monitoring requirements and best management practices necessary to protect our waterways and communities. As of September 2017, the litigation is paused while our coalition, groups representing the agricultural industry, and Ecology negotiate a solution.


What’s Upstream

Western Environmental Law Center 

CAFO General Permit Fact Sheet

CAFO General Permit page from Department of Ecology

Impact of nutrient pollution on ocean acidification